By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
By now, it’s no secret that I have made a firm commitment to ensuring that Somerville is truly a multimodal community, encouraging walking, biking, and use of public transportation, as well as providing safe ways to do so. But moving our infrastructure into the 21st century and creating safer streets will not happen by chance. That’s why we have the SafeSTART program.
In 2006, I convened a pedestrian and traffic safety task force that was asked to evaluate every aspect of our traffic and pedestrian systems – from crosswalks and signals to traffic-calming technologies. Their report, titled Safe, Sustainable Transportation Assessment and Recommendation Team, or SafeSTART, outlined recommendations for short-and long-term enhancements. I am proud to say that most of their recommendations for cost-effective improvements have been effectively implemented citywide over the last six years, and that many of them were completed immediately upon delivery of the report.
We have restriped or freshly painted more than 2,000 crosswalks, and added more than 30 miles of on-street bike facilities like bike lanes and sharrows; we’ve added or repaired, on average, 150 faded or damaged traffic-related signs per month (1,800 per year) and installed approximately 300 phosphorescent reflective materials for added visibility on pedestrian and stop signs throughout the city. More recently, we successfully implemented a back-in, angled parking configuration in one of our most congested business districts that, due to increased parking availability and a reduction in vehicle speeds and improved pedestrian/bicycle safety, have excited residents and business owners in other parts of the city.
All of our efforts in the last several years have contributed to Somerville being named the 8th most bikeable community in the nation by thestreet.com, and the 10th most walkable by walkscore.com, in addition to commendation by the Boston Phoenix as one of the best places to live in Massachusetts. Yet in a community as old and historic as Somerville, particularly a densely settled urban community where our infrastructure sees a lot of use, aging infrastructure and highly traveled streets require constant maintenance and frequent reassessment. Our needs and resources continually change, and therefore so must we.
Which is why, I am happy to announce, I have commissioned the beginning of a new SafeSTART process. We will reassess those recommendations set out in the initial SafeSTART report, and examine ways in which we can improve to create a unified vision for our city’s unique transit and safety needs across all levels. Using a data-driven approach, and with an eye toward innovative design that can address safety issues and influence behavior, we will be able to evaluate the impact that the initial report and action steps have had, and work to improve or expand on them.
We have a great starting point: recent data – both statewide and local – shows a significant decrease in the numbers of pedestrian accidents over the last two years as compared with data from 2008 to 2010 and, since 2006, traffic accidents in general are declining. When combined with the efforts of our police and traffic and parking departments, both in terms of increased enforcement measures and improvements in engineering equipment, serious motor vehicle accidents in Somerville were down 23% in 2012 alone.
The overarching principles that guided the initial SafeSTART report will continue to guide our decisions and policies. Somerville should be a great place to live, work, play and raise a family, and an important part of that means that our streetscapes must be designed to encourage slower vehicle traffic and speeds, while allowing for increased bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Reducing our carbon footprint and creating an environmentally friendly, and healthy, community is synonymous with reducing our dependency on automobiles. And as the Green Line Extension gets under way, our goal of bringing the percentage of residents who have easy access to rapid transit from 15% to 85% is finally within reach.
With a solid basis and indications that our policies and recent enhancements are successful, the newly convened SafeSTART team – composed of representatives from SPCD, Traffic & Parking, Engineering, SomerStat and the Police Department – can step back and look at our system as a whole, measure what has been effective in strategically planned areas, and what we can do to improve safety and infrastructure for walking and biking citywide.